'Extraordinary Gentlemen' teams up superheroes from literary sources

Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2003

LOS ANGELES Mutants, freaks and angry hulks were on the loose more than a century before today's comic-book craze. Back then, they just wore classy Victorian garb instead of gaudy Spandex.

''The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,'' Hollywood's latest dabble in comics, unites a passel of rogues, swashbucklers and scientific wonders borrowed from literature to battle global evil at the close of the 19th century.

The idea of a gang of do-gooding misfits could be torn from ''X-Men,'' the Marvel Comics series about mutants with amazing powers that spawned this year's biggest comic-book movie, ''X2: X-Men United.''

The difference is that the protagonists of ''League'' were ripped from the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Bram Stoker and other writers enshrined in the classics sections of bookstores.

Comic-book writer Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O'Neill launched the ''League'' in 1999 with a series of comic books that teams such Victorian-era literary figures as Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Capt. Nemo and ''Dracula'' vampire Mina Harker.

''I think they're the original superheroes,'' said Peta Wilson, who plays Mina.

Sean Connery stars as adventurer Quatermain, a progenitor of Indiana Jones who was the hero of ''King Solomon's Mines'' and other tales by H. Rider Haggard.

Like comic-book heroes who fight temptations to exploit their powers for nefarious purposes, most members of the ''Extraordinary Gentlemen'' gang are at odds with their dark sides. The film's Mina bitten by Dracula in Stoker's novel is a prim, corseted creature struggling to use her bloodsucking tendencies for good.

The team also includes Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), the renegade mariner of Verne's ''20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,'' who in the film tries to atone for his violent past by putting his submarine, the Nautilus, in the service of a British-led effort to stop a gang of underground warmongers; a thief (Tony Curran) who stumbles on the invisibility formula of Wells' ''The Invisible Man''; Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), the eternally youthful anti-hero of Oscar Wilde's ''The Picture of Dorian Gray''; and a forerunner of ''The Incredible Hulk,'' Stevenson's Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng) and his beastly alter-ego, Edward Hyde.

''What I love about them is that because of the fact they all come from literature, they have a depth. They all have a dark side,'' Flemyng said. ''Even if you're not aware of the books, I think you can still feel that.''

The film version Americanizes the tale by adding U.S. Secret Service agent Sawyer (Shane West), a character loosely based on Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer.

The luster of seeing those literary figures together on-screen is much the same as the overlap in comic books, when heroes and villains from different comics are intermixed.

''If you're a comic-book geek like I am, half the reason you loved comic books is that Spider-Man would be in a fight with Dr. Doom, then Daredevil shows up and saves his butt,'' said ''Lea-gue'' producer Don Murphy. ''Or remember the time Superman and Batman got together? That's obviously the genesis of the 'League.'''

Also on hand in ''League'' is a British spy-master named M (Richard Roxburgh), a wink at the boss in the James Bond tales in which Connery starred. M also has connections to the Sherlock Holmes adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle.

''League'' slips in a wealth of other sly references to classic literature, including the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and Jonathan Swift.

''The origin of our superheroes is in a way those characters from literature,'' said ''League'' producer Trevor Albert. ''They embody a lot of those things that have now become popularized in contemporary movies. We think of it as something modern from the last 20 or 30 years, but a lot of these characters with super-extraordinary powers have existed for a long time in literature.''

Par for Hollywood, the movie adaptation of ''League'' tones down the comic book's rough edges. On the page, the comic-book Quatermain is an opium-addled has-been, while Connery's Quatermain is a valiant hero. The film's invisible man comes off as a goodhearted rascal; in the comic book, he uses his invisibility to rape young women at a girls' school.

''The way the comic book reads, it would have been a brilliant sort of BBC drama written by Dennis Potter (''The Singing Detective'') if he was still alive,'' said ''League'' screenwriter James Dale Robinson, a comic-book author himself. ''A summer movie requires something different. You couldn't have an opium-addicted, conflicted-with-self-doubt Quatermain. You couldn't have an invisible rapist.

''You can make the characters part of a large summer film but still be true to the spirit of the comic book.''

While whimsically toying with the source material, Moore and O'Neill's ''League'' comics are fairly true to the spirit of the original authors' characters. Like today's comic-book misfits, the people imagined by Wilde, Stoker, West and Stevenson often were outcasts defying social expectations.

''The interesting thing about the 19th century is how much repression there was,'' Wilson said. ''Bram Stoker or Oscar Wilde, imagine these writers and free spirits living in a really repressed time like that. They were the voice of the people and wrote these characters acting out against that repression. That's how angry they all were, that they had to be so conformed.''

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